John Duncan Fergusson, RBA (1874-1961)
Born just outside Edinburgh in March 1874, there was no early hint or suggestion that John Duncan Fergusson would be anything other than a traditional member of Edinburgh's middle-class society. His official education culminated at the city's medical school which, to the surprise of his family, he left after two years to enroll at the School of Art. His days as a student there were short-lived as the frustrations with an old fashioned teaching curriculum persuaded him that the only viable alternative was to establish his own studio and teach himself to paint.
Fergusson's early work consisted mainly of small oil paintings and panels, depicting local street scenes, landscapes, still lifes and interiors. Impressed by the work of the Glasgow Boys and encouraged by their example Fergusson decided to study in Paris and enrolled at the Academie Colarossi in 1895. His outgoing personality was rather more in tune with the café society of Paris than its academic painting institutions so the real benefit from this first trip was gained from his visit to the Public Galleries (particularly the Salle Caillebotte) and private dealers where the work of the Impressionists could be seen. At this stage, however, and for the next several years his own works concentrated much more on the importance of subtle tonal variations (reminiscent of Whistler, Manet and of his Glasgow School mentors) than on the more colourful work of Renoir and Pissarro.
Fergusson's first visit to Paris had a dramatic impact on him and he returned to France almost every summer for the next ten years. So while part of these years were spent soaking up French social and cultural stimulation, the remainder was spent mainly in Edinburgh where he had established a close productive working relationship with Peploe. Both artists concentrated on painterly still life subjects (Peploe normally on a larger scale) often with dark backgrounds acting as a contrast to the formal arrangement of a few objects in the foreground. Silver and glass vases were favourite props.
One can perhaps detect a lightening of Fergusson's palette in the early years of last century following trips to North Africa and Spain; and certainly the visits that Peploe and Fergusson made jointly to the seaside towns around Paris-Plage and later in Brittany led to a series of creamy tonal panels which emphasised Fergusson's mastery of the manipulation of oil paint. There can be little doubt, however, that the Fauve exhibition at the Salon Automne in 1905 and the interest which it stimulated was a major influence on Fergusson's work. By 1907, not only had he moved to Paris permanently but he had exhibited works at the Salon des Indipendents and at the Salon D'Automne.
Fergusson's paintings took a new vigour; gone was the rather reserved and reverential tonal work of a few years earlier. Instead, it was replaced with an explosion of pure colour which mirrored the excitement that he felt about his life at the time. Street life and café society and the stylishly dressed women of Edwardian Paris were a constant source of subject matter for the young painter. Fergusson was particularly fond of the café d'Harcourt; of it he said: 'But for me was the great attraction was the girl frequenters. They were chiefly girls employed by dress makers and milliners and wore things they were working at, mostly too extreme from a practical point of view, but with that touch of daring that made them very helpful.
Fergusson's work underwent another significant change in 1910. Perhaps inspired by the Ballets Russes and its interpretation of Scheherazade (in which the performers appeared virtually naked, dancing in front of highly coloured and patterned backdrops). Over the next two years Fergusson produced a series of female nude figure paintings which were quite unlike anything he had previously shown. There were aspects of Fauvism, hints at the influence of Matisse, and a stylistic approach suggesting the technique of Auguste Chabaud, but these paintings - almost expressionist in feel - marked the beginning of Fergusson's career as an independent spirit creating work that was essentially his own. Gone was the concern for the portrayal of pure beauty that had inhabited his earlier work; it was now line and form, and of course colour, that mattered.
Among the first of this series of paintings was 'La Force'. Perhaps the best known as 'Rhythm', a huge stylised canvas of a seated female nude holding an apple set in front of a multi-patterned backdrop. 'Rhythm' was borrowed as a title for a magazine just being launched by John Middleton Murry who invited Fergusson to be editor. The painting was featured on the first issue's front cover.
While the nude dominated Fergusson's work between 1910 and 1912, the last two years before the war saw both Fergusson and Peploe in the South of France, concentrating on landscape painting mainly around Cassis where Fergusson settled. (He returned there after the war). The quality of light enabled both artists to capture the essence of the provencal landscape - with the sun-baked terrain almost radiating heat. The construction of much of this work has hints of Cubism and an obvious debt to Cézanne, but once again it was Fergusson painting as himself, not as an imitator.
By this stage Fergusson was recognised and accepted as one of the foremost artists of his generation and certainly among the most forward thinking. His work was shown in the Post Impressionist and Futurist exhibition in 1913 at London's Dore Gallery, where he had a solo exhibition in early 1914. The more extreme art movements such as Vorticism held little interest for him and within a few years the power and energy that had characterised his stylistically ground breaking nudes of 1910 and 1912 had all but disappeared.
In the ten years after Fergusson spent most of his time in London, but with some noticeable exceptions, including paintings produced on a visit to Dinard in 1930. He returned to Glasgow after the second world war and died there in 1961.